Judge Roy Bean: Dance with the Dead

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Judge Roy Bean: Law West of the Pecos

A famous dead Texan profile for "Dance with the Dead"

 
By Mike Patterson, ITC communications volunteer
 
Phantly Roy Bean was an eccentric saloon-keeper and justice of the peace with the self-proclaimed title of "the law west of the Pecos."
 
Born in Kentucky in 1825, Bean left home at age 16 to join his brother Sam in San Antonio. The pair then moved to Mexico to open a trading post, an enterprise cut short after Roy Bean shot and killed a "desperado" and forcing the brothers to high-tail it to San Diego, California. There, Sam was elected the first mayor of the burgeoning seaside community.
 
Trouble seemed to follow Roy wherever he went. He got involved in a duel in which he wounded a man and was tossed in jail. A handsome ladies man, Bean had numerous female admirers who sent him gifts of flowers, food, wine, cigars and a knife wrapped in a tamale which he used to dig out of jail and escape.
 
Another town, another misfortune, this time in San Gabriel, California. Here, he courted a young lady who was subsequently kidnapped and was soon on the path to a forced marriage to a Mexico officer. Bean challenged the man to a duel. The officer accepted but ended up at the losing end of Bean’s bullet. Outraged family members grabbed Bean, tied a noose around his neck, placed him on a horse and strung him up. They left before seeing him swing, a decision they probably came to regret for the horse just stood there rather than trotting off and leaving Bean dangling at the end of the rope. His lady love came out of hiding, cut him down and set him free. The ordeal left Bean with a permanent rope burn and stiff neck.
 
Eventually, Bean wound up in Texas again, where he heard about the construction camps for the railroad extension through West Texas. Sensing money to be made, Bean purchased a tent, supplies to sell to the railroad workers, and ten 55-gallon barrels of whiskey. He set up a make-shift tent saloon within drinking distance of 8,000 parched railroad workers. With lawlessness running rampant without a nearby courthouse, a Texas Ranger established a local legal jurisdiction by appointing Bean as justice of the peace for Precinct 6 in Pecos County. One of Bean’s first acts as JP was to shoot up a competitor’s saloon. Jurors in Bean’s courtroom consisted of his best bar customers.
 
As the railroad construction pushed farther west, Bean followed to a site west of the Pecos River near its confluence with the Rio Grande. He called the place Langtry after Lillie Langtry, the famous British actress and the heartthrob of his dreams. He named his saloon the Jenny Lilly.
 
Since there was no jail in Langtry, most cases were settled with fines, which likely ended up in Bean’s pockets. Even horse thieves, hung in other jurisdictions, met a more favorable fate in Bean’s courtroom. They were let off with a fine if they returned the stolen horses. And once, when the body of a cowboy packing a six-shooter and some cash was found in the desert, Bean fined the corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon. Although Bean had a reputation as a "hanging judge," he actually sentenced only two men to hang, one of whom escaped.
 
Bean spent the last years of his life spending much of his profits on helping the poor. He died in 1903 after a bout of heavy drinking in San Antonio and without ever having met Miss Langtry.
 
 

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©2014 Institute of Texan Cultures. University of Texas at San Antonio. All Rights Reserved.
 

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